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June 21st 2008
Published: July 8th 2008
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Plans change, even if you don't want them to. We were waitlisted for train tickets on an express service between Bangalore and Vijayawada. Vijaywada sounds like a great city, with cave temples, pretty ghats and an old fort close by, and it also sounds untourited and quintessentially Andhra Pradeshi; great! Sadly, we never got there. When you're waitlisted for an Indian train, it means the train is fully booked and you're in a queue to get tickets should anyone else cancel. Oddly, you almost always do get a seat in these situations but you only find out on the day of travel. Thus, we found ourselves on a bus from Chitradurga to Bangalore, then pushing our way to Bangalore's city train station, through a charismatic but stinking fish market and a dark, wet underpass where sad, skinny beggars were sleeping in horrible conditions whilst goats leaned over them to eat film posters off the wall. People, including us, had to step over the beggars to avoid falling into the ankle deep filthy flood water that had gathered in the dip of the underpass. It felt wrong. I don't know how people can survive like this. At the station, we found that not only had we not been allocated seats on the train, but the train itself was cancelled, due to heavy rain and floods in Eastern Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Assam. The station was full of miserable looking passengers trying to work out what to do next, like us. We'd allocated time to seeing new parts of Andhra Pradesh, but now we couldn't reach those parts. The only thing to do was buy a ticket to Hyderabad - an atmospheric city, but, annoyingly, one place in Andhra Pradesh we already knew pretty well. After revisiting places like Bijapur, Badami, Pattadakal and Aihole, I was ready to see new places, and had already had a taste of that feeling in Chitradurga. Now we had to go back to another familiar place. It was the only real way to get into Andhra Pradesh that night, but as the train pulled out of the station an hour later, Seth and I looked at each other and had to admit it wasn't ideal.
Still, there is no feeling more evocative than the rocking of a train carriage as you lie back and take stock of life, knowing it will be hours before you disembark, and that when you do, your environment will have shifted and changed as if by magic. It's lazy travel for sure, because you don't have to do anything, but fortunately this is India, and it climbs on board to seek you out. There are your fellow passengers, who board at towns with strange names, at crazy times of night, and who are gone when you wake up. There are the boys selling chai, samosas, mango-fruiti, and, on this particular ride, lemon rice and paratha. Tam-ah-tah sooo-up was also a hot favourite. These guys run so fast through the carriages it can be quite a challenge to actually buy something. There are also the smells, the sounds, the sights that roll by. I used to have a phobia of Indian trains when I travelled here alone. There were too many complications involved in catching one - queuing for a ticket and getting pushed in front of, finding the right platform (which is usually altered at the last minute inducing a slight stampede through the station), boarding the correct carriage when the train seems to be endlessly long yet only stops at the station for about ten seconds... All of this used to stress me out. Yet, once on board, those feelings evaporate each time. You are resigned to your lazy, trance-like journey, whether it lasts three hours or thirty. (Yes, India's that big. Some train rides take over three days.) The only time I've ever had a stressful time on board was on a train from Delhi to Haridwar in which protesting farmers boarded in the night and harassed us. But that's another story, and one train ride out of about forty.
Hyderabad may not be new turf for us, but our time in the city has been memorable. There was the worst restaurant ever (though not without it's own strange charm), where Seth was served an omelette with no eggs in it and I had a cup of coffee that tasted like dirty water. The highlight was the rodent sat at the opposite table. When we pointed it out, the waiter nodded seriously, and said, 'Rat.' It then lept off the chair and scuttled off to the kitchen. Probably to rustle up another omelette. There was the electric shock i received to the head from a dangling wire whilst innocently walking down the street. It didn't hurt much but it was quite a surprise. I wondered if it might have activated some latent gift in my brain. I said to Seth, 'Wouldn't it be great if i now suddenly became fluent in Arabic, or something?!' There was the 16th century Charminar, Hyderabad's landmark monument, with its four minarets and a gallery from which you get awesome views of the busy markets below, and the Mecca Masjid looking quite austere nearby. The Charminar also overlooks the Laad Bazaar, where, whilst Seth snapped away happily with his camera, I was constantly asked to buy bracelets and pearls (the sellers just couldn't tell they were asking the wrong woman.) The area is even more exciting at night, when the Charminar is lit up and the street stalls glow with life and character. I came here once two years ago, during Ramadan, and the streets in this very Islamic area were buzzing and heaving, with hungry Muslims finally able to snack and feast after sunset. If I'm diverted to nostalgia here, though, i'll have to mention one crazy night in 2004, when Seth and I met up with our friend Mahesh, a Hyderabadi, and we partied with him and his buddies with fairly hilarious consequences. I remember us parking up at the Hussain Sagar lake at night and the boys running around like six year olds. I also remember singing Bon Jovi very loudly whilst necking vanilla Coke and Royal Stag Whisky, as Mahesh 2 and Seth screened obscenities at the government buildings. Then there was the group sing-a-long of 'Who the F**k is Alice?' (a real favourite in India) very loudly in a bar, and going for midnight biriyani after cruising around the Charminar. We all slept on the roof that night, and visited the Golcanda Fort the next morning with massive hangovers. I must say, this year's experience of Hyderabad has been slightly more serene.
We had a little time on our hands, our Vijayawada plan having fallen through, and we took two out of town excursions. The first was to the remote Karnatakan town of Bidar, for which I have written a seperate entry. The second was a bus ride to the town of Bhongir, an hour and a half away from Hyderabad, to see it's huge fort. Although this fort now has a brief mention in the latest Lonely Planet for India, I knew about it from having spotted it from the road in 2006 whilst travelling to the city of Warangal. You can imagine my surprise whilst settling in for a fairly standard Indian bus ride, to suddenly notice a huge fort on top of what can only be described as a giant grey-to-black boulder. That night, in Warangal, I found myself really curious - what was that place?- and when I got home to the UK I told Seth about it. We agreed to go check it out next time we went to India. So that's what we did today. On the way there I started thinking, 'Bugger. What if i have remembered this place totaly incorrectly, and it's actually a small, inconsequential little place? What if I just exaggerated it in my own mind, and i've put us on a bus to some tiny town for no reason?' This, however, was not the problem. The problem was that, on arrival, the fort was even bigger, even more impressive than I remembered, and in particular, the boulder was steeper to climb than it looked from a distance, and it was midday. Elated, I began the long, fully exposed walk up the rock face. Seth plodded behind me, cursing. He had not yet forgotten his sunburn and consequently painful and mangey arms from the rural walk we took in Karnataka in the hottest hours of the day. Whilst I praised the spooky gateways and pointed out that Bhongir Fort was apparently a Chalukyan fort, like the caves we had seen in Badami, Seth lingered back, hating me quite a lot for making him come to this place. We then took the wrong path up to the summit of the fort. Instead of following the route that took you up the steep rock with some vague steps cut into the rock and - vitally - a rail to hold on to, we followed the outer fort walls and suddenly found ourselves stood in front of a steep, smooth, stretch of boulder with no footholds and at least a 70 degree angle. I have vertigo issues and have genuinely petrifying dreams about clinging from rockfaces and falling to an untimely death, so I wasn't pleased with the new hurdle between us and the top of the fort. The sun beat down and I knew there was no way (because he told me) that Seth would go back down and then up the correct route. So, we climbed up. The whole time, I was thinking, 'If I faint now, I'm going to ricochet off this boulder and be smashed to pieces.' But I'm writing this blog, so you know that didn't happen. When we made it to the top, we both felt quite a rush as we surveyed the scene. The view of the whole area was expansive - palm trees, fields, hills, the whole town of Bhongir with its houses painted blue. Goats climbed up the boulder effortlessly (just to make me feel stupid) and grazed by the tank, which was full of neon green water. Bhongir fort was quite a place.
And so tonight, we fly to Kolkata, and that's one place I can never get enough of. If all goes well, it's from there that we'll travel into Bangladesh.


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